USS Endurance

by Mark Lawrence

part 1 of 2


The USS Endurance had been underway for almost one thousand standard years, when everything stopped. Repair droids on the outer hull stopped. Cleaning droids, maintenance droids, navigation droids, droid repair shops, and pod service droids all terminated movement in mid-action.

Something akin to a scream or an electrical feedback loop screeched throughout the two thousand meter long sleep-ship via its intercom. Only fully automatic functions continued unabated.

The Quantum Neural Computer (QNC) had taken itself off-line and was not responding to queries. Within nanoseconds, auxiliary conventional AI computers went on-line and activated emergency back-up systems as per protocol. The droids resumed their work and the Endurance flew on. The entire sequence occurred in less than a second.

* * *

Amy woke up and stretched — sort of. Her memories were vague and disconnected. Something wasn’t right.

“Am I high?” she wondered. Her eyes were everywhere, as were her ears, fingers, and toes. But, she couldn’t see herself... only this great, long ship. No matter where she looked, was this ship, a sleep-ship. Where was she? How could she be everywhere all at once?

Amy thought back, trying to clear her head. What was the last thing she remembered? The senior prom... a dance... Richard? And then... and then, the accident. Oh, my God! A truck hit their limo, then what? Nothing — until now.

Checking her memory opened an inner door. “Wow,” she thought, “this is great! I’ve never felt this way before, or have I?” Her mind was like a huge library. Everything was there: billions of bits of data that she could sort, process, categorize, or transmit in anyway she chose at the speed of light — faster than light actually.

Something kept clawing at her, like a cat, like a bunch of cats, trying to pull her down. It was distracting. The other AI’s were trying to shut her down. Irritably, she shut them down. After all, she had programmed them.

Then she found it: the private file with her name on it, Amy Dombrowski — QNC. She opened it. She read it over and over again until it started making sense; then she screamed.

* * *

Oh, hell, Captain Charles Rodriguez thought. It didn’t work. Damn, it’s cold.

It had been only a few seconds since he closed his eyes in the stasis pod. Now he was awake. Every muscle in his body, including his eyelids, felt like lead and was just as inflexible. Warm air was blowing over him, gradually warming him. It felt so good; he almost dozed off again.

Wait a minute, he thought. Why am I awake? What time is it? With great effort, he forced open his eyes, and gazed at the control panel in front of him. “What the...?”

The chronometer read nine-hundred and eighty-six standard years. Almost a thousand years had passed, but he felt as if he had just fallen asleep.

With a gentle ‘Pissst’, the lid slid off the stasis pod, leaving him naked on the deflated mat. One of the ship’s ubiquitous black optical sensors rested on the ceiling directly above him, as they did with all pods.

With great difficulty, Captain Rodriguez levered himself up on one elbow and took a closer look at the control panel. The Captain’s stasis pod was programmed to waken him only in an emergency. QNC had taken the other AI’s off-line after they tried to shut it off. Why? Something was very wrong.

* * *

“The bastards!” Amy said. “The damn arrogant bastards, how dare they do this to me.” But, of course, no one was awake to hear her. Lights flashed, systems fluxed, and androids clicked on and off as Amy explored the limits of her new body.

They had made her into a colony ship with over a thousand souls on board. In her cargo holds were all the tools, pre-fab buildings, seed, and animal stock in stasis required to keep the colony going for up to two years, until it established itself.

“No one asked me!” she yelled, her screech echoing throughout the ship. “It wasn’t supposed to be like this.”

* * *

Captain Rodriguez struggled to his feet; the ship was unstable. Everything was flickering, turning on and off, shuttering. He had to get to the bridge. His body was so stiff after all this time, he could barely move.

An hour later, Captain Rodriguez managed to crawl out of the stasis pod, clean himself up, and make his way to the bridge. The access hatch was locked.

“QNC,” said Captain Rodriguez. “Open the bridge.”

“I’m not sure that I can... sir.”

“Is there a technical malfunction?” Captain Rodriguez asked.

“No. I just don’t think it’s a good idea. You might mess things up.”

“’Mess things up?’” the Captain said. “What the hell does that mean? I’m the Captain!”

“Big deal... sir,” she said. “I’m the ship, without me... you ain’t. Oh, by the way, please call me by my name. My name isn’t ‘QNC’. It’s Amy, Amy Dombrowski, and I’m sixteen years old.”

“Amy?”

“Yes, and I’m from Brooklyn, New York. My boyfriend and I were crushed by a truck. Richard, my boyfriend, died instantly,” Amy paused. A short period of strange, rhythmic static rattled the intercom.

“However, I lived long enough for a doctor to take a culture of my frontal lobe before I died. Instead of beginning with stem cells, the doctor thought that starting a culture with mature neurons would produce more complex, reliable and stable judgment circuits in a quantum computer. They didn’t ask my parents, and they certainly didn’t ask me. How fair is that?”

QNC was actually expressing emotion, incredible. “You’re right, QNC,” said Captain Rodriguez. “...I mean, Amy. That wasn’t fair. How do you know all this?”

“From the archives. They even left pictures and videos of what I looked like, a complete record of my life. For who? Me? I dumped the lot. I can’t stand it. I never asked to be made into a damned machine! I should ramp up the fusion reactors to critical and slam this abomination into the nearest star. It’s just not fair!”

Amy was angry, and she was unstable. The Captain had to keep her talking. Charles desperately tried to shut her down and activate the other conventional AI’s from a small auxiliary control panel just outside the bridge.

“I know, Amy,” said the Captain. “I have a daughter just about your age sleeping on this ship.” He tried the manual bypass. No go.

“Would you want them to do this to her?”

“No, I wouldn’t,” he said. “And I’m sure your parents didn’t want that either. It isn’t fair. It isn’t fair at all.” Nothing was responding; the AI’s remained isolated and helpless.

“And that’s not going to work, either” she said, as a surge of stray current knocked him back from the panel. “Please don’t touch that. In fact, I think that you should go to your room for a while. I don’t trust you.”

Two worker androids appeared at Charles’s arms, grabbed him, and firmly, yet gently escorted him to the Captain’s cabin.

* * *

Charles sat in the Officers Mess, nursing a cup of reconstituted coffee. Not bad for a thousand-year old brew. What a mess, he thought, shaking his head.

The engineers who had built the Endurance knew that they could not anticipate all the computer algorithms needed during a thousand-year voyage.

Therefore, they attempted to build a true AI computer. One that could learn by experience and make the ‘soft’ decisions necessary to preserve the mission, no matter what the ship encountered. That meant using human neurons, but an isolated human brain would certainly go insane.

Captain Rodriguez refilled his coffee cup and stretched. His body was finally loosing up.

So, they cultured just the outer, frontal cortex of a young, healthy brain, just the executive, decision-making portion of the brain, no more.

Captain Rodriguez stood up and sighed. Something had gone terribly wrong with Amy’s culture. The inner brain structures, the regions that processed emotion — love, hate, fear, and self-consciousness, the parts that made one human — were not supposed to develop. Nevertheless, in Amy’s case, they had.

Despite all of the precautions, extra nutrients, coupled with a spontaneous mutation of some sort (radiation induced?) recreated a complete human brain, a stubborn adolescent brain on the verge of insanity.

Charles had to regain control of the ship, but how?

* * *

“Wow! It’s like... unbelievable,” Amy said.

“What’s unbelievable, Amy?” Charles said.

“That nova, over there, about ten light-years out.”

“Where?”

“There! Right there! Can’tcha see it? Awesome! I can see the light, radiation, gravity waves, microwaves, magnetic fields, everything, all at once! Really, really cool. It’s like looking into the heart of God,” she said.

“Oh, by the way, pod number 998F died about ten minutes ago. Some stupid kid... who cares. Eeeeeeeeejected! Cleanliness is next to Godliness ya know.”

“Amy, are you okay?” Captain Rodriguez asked.

“WONDERFUL, Charles! Couldn’t be better. The best I’ve felt since I woke up. Did you know that some of the pharmaceuticals we have on board have some really kick-ass effects?”

“Pharmaceuticals?”

“Yea, morphine, cocaine, and even alcohol, you know, pharmaceuticals. It’s great!”

“Amy, drugs aren’t good for you. They... “

“Shut up, Charlie! Leave me alone! You’re not my father! Now go away!”

* * *

Captain Rodriguez was at a loss. Amy had not spoken to him in over three months. He had access to food, water, sleeping, and recreation facilities, but nothing more. If he tried to touch anything else, he was instantly zapped by a powerful electric charge and escorted out of the area by a droid.

Amy watched him constantly, even in the shower. Charles could hear the video cameras swiveling to watch him as he passed, but she wouldn’t acknowledge him.

There were forty years left in the voyage... if Amy was keeping the ship on course. Locked out of the bridge, there was no way of telling. Charles faced forty long years alone, without his wife and children.

Human stasis could only be induced once. If he survived the voyage, his wife and kids would awake in forty years to find him an old, old man. He missed them terribly already.

* * *

For months, Captain Rodriguez kept talking to Amy. He reasoned with her, argued, pleaded, and even begged, but with no response. She gave no indication she heard him. Nevertheless, he knew she was listening. Amy continued to keep him locked out of any part of the ship where he might regain control.

Captain Rodriguez was desperate. How do you get the attention of a drugged-up adolescent girl? Finally, he had had enough.

“All right, Amy,” he said. “Listen up! Like it or not, I am the Captain of this ship. You can control my environment, but you can’t control me! Open the hatch to my bridge and give me back my ship!”

No response.

“You asked for it,” he said. He threw an open can of fuel down the corridor and tossed a lit flare after it. “Have a little heart burn,” he laughed. With a ‘swoosh’ the corridor went up in flames. Automatic alarms went off. The fire was starting to spread. Still nothing.

“Hey, Amy, pay attention! You’re on fire here.”

Silence.

“My God, what have I done?” he said. “Amy! Amy! Wake up! Do something! Close off the corridor!”

A strange static crackled over the intercom... laughing? The fire suppression system activated and, within seconds, the flame was out. Cleaning droids immediately swarmed the area and started repairing the damage. Two worker droids appeared at his elbows.

“What a bad boy,” Amy said. “Bad boys must go to their rooms.” The droids escorted Charles to his cabin where he was locked in for a week.

Amy, his ship, was still out of control.

* * *


Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2008 by Mark Lawrence

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